15 Commanders In 11 Years: How The Face Of The West In Afghanistan Has Changed

By @MayaErgas on
  • Lt. Gen Jon C. McColl (r)
    British, served from January 10, 2002 to June 20, 2002. During his tenure, the ISAF was rotating commanders on a six-month basis. The NATO presence in Afghanistan during this time grew to just under 5,000 soldiers. Pictured here with German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping (l) on February 12, 2002. Reuters/Mario Laporta
  • Lt. Gen Hilmi Akin Zorlu (l)
    Turkish, served from June 20, 2002 to February 10, 2003. Pictured here with Afghan President Hamid Karzi (c) and former UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi (r) on Feburayr 10, 2003. Reuters/Erik de Castro
  • Lieutenant General Norbert van Heyst (c)
    German, served from February 10, 2003 to August 11, 2003. On June 7, a taxi in Kabul that was filled with explosives rammed into a bus, killing four German soldiers, one Afghan civilian, and wounding 39 people. After his tenure, NATO officially took control of ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Previously, the coalition had been made of up countries that simply volunteered their forces, including South Korea. Pictured here on July 17, 2003 with Canadian Brigadier General Peter J. Devlin (r), and German Brigadier General Werner Freers (l). Reuters/Ahmad Masood
  • Lt. Gen Götz Gliemeroth (far right)
    German, served from August 11, 2003 to February 9, 2004. In October of his time as commander, the U.N. expanded the ISAF’s powers to cover Afghanistan beyond the capital. In December 2003, he oversaw the German-led takeover of the Kunduz province. Pictured here on September 26, 2003 with former NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson (C). Reuters/Ahmad Masood
  • Lt. Gen Rick J. Hillier
    Canadian, served from February 9, 2004 to August 9, 2004. When he took over, Canada was the largest contributor to ISAF, with 2,000 troops on the ground. Pictured here on April 11, 2006, when he was Canada's Chief of Defense, a post he would resign in 2008. Reuters/Peter Jones
  • Lt. Gen Jean-Louis Py
    French, served from August 9, 2004 to February 13, 2005. He oversaw the completion of Stage One of the ISAF expansion into the north of Afghanistan. Pictured here on October 4, 2004, with the coffin of an Italian ISAF soldier from the elite "Alpini" troops killed in a car accident outside Kabul. Reuters/Caren Firouz
  • Lt. Gen Ethem Erdağı (r)
    Turkish, served from February 13, 2005 to August 5, 2005. After assuming control, it was announced ISAF forces would be expanding into Western Afghanistan, and also increased the number of partnered Afghan-ISAF missions. Pictured here on August 4, 2005, with Lt. Gen Mauro Del Vecchio (l) and German General Gerhard Back (c) during the handover ceremony from Erdağı to Vecchio. Reuters/Ahmad Masood
  • Gen. Mauro del Vecchio
    Italian, served from August 5, 2005 to May 4, 2006. Oversaw the completion of ISAF expansion into Western Afghanistan. During his time NATO also put 2,000 more troops on the ground, and that the ISAF would be taking over the U.S.’s Operation Enduring Freedom in Helmand Province. Pictured here on August 4, 2005, during the handover ceremony; his first day of work. Reuters/Ahmad Masood
  • General Sir David Richards (l)
    British, served from May 4, 2006 to February 4, 2007. Just after he took over, on May 22 a British helicopter fired on and destroyed a French armored jeep that was suspected to be booby trapped by Taliban fighters. It was the first time U.K. forces executed a “combat kill.” ISAF forces also completed Stage Three and Four of their plan, effectively taking control of all of Afghanistan. By the end of his time there were 10,000 more NATO troops and a total of 31,000 ISAF troops on the ground. Pictured here on February 7, 2010 in Kathmandu with Nepalese Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal (r). He currently is Britain's Chief of General Staff. Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar
  • Gen. Dan K. McNeill
    American, served from February 4, 2007 to June 3, 2008. Takes over with a mandate to concentrate on fighting rather than making peace deals. The Helmand province becomes the focus of operations as the last strong hold of Taliban fighters and narco-traffickers. Pictured here on June 7, 2008 with former U.S. President George W. Bush. Reuters/Jim Young
  • Gen. David D. McKiernan (r)
    American, served from June 3, 2008 to June 15, 2009. By January 2009 there are 55,100 troops on the ground. End of his tenure saw the three-day Operation Mar Lewe in Helmand which killed two British soldiers. He was dismissed after he was perceived to be “too languid, too old-school, and too removed from Washington.” Pictured here on June 3, 2008 with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (l). Reuters/Ahmad Masood
  • Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal (l)
    American, served from June 15, 2009 to June 23, 2010. Helmand continues to be a major trouble zone. McChrystal resigned after an interview appeared with him in Rolling Stone, with unflattering quotes about Joe Biden that were attributed to him. Pictured here on December 8, 2009 with former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry (r). Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
  • Gen. David H. Petraeus
    American, served from July 4, 2010 to July 18, 2011. His takeover of command was technically a step down from his previous position as commander of Central Command, which oversees all U.S. operations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. In July 2010, Wikileaks published the Afghan War Diary, a log of 91,731 documents, mostly classified as secret, pertaining to civilian deaths and increasing Taliban activity between 2004 and 2009. It is considered the largest leak in U.S. military history. Petreaus relinquished command of NATO forces in July 2011 following the deaths of nine Afghan boys in a NATO helicopter strike that previous March. The May before he stepped down, Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. Pictured here on July 9, 2011, at a media session with former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (not pictured). Reuters/Paul Richards/Pool
  • General John R. Allen (r)
    American, served from July 18, 2011 to February 10, 2013. In June before Allen took over, Obama announced the beginning of U.S. troop drawdown in the country. Rates of ISAF deaths increased due to more attacks by the Taliban. In November 2012, Allen found himself under investigation for “inappropriate communications” with socialite Jill Kelley as part of what came to be known as the “Petraeus affair.” He was cleared of charges in January 2013, and relinquished command of the forces that February. He is expected to be nominated as NATO’s supreme commander in Europe, according to the BBC. Pictured here on September 23, 2011 at the funeral for former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was slain by a suicide bomber. Reuters/Shah Marai/Pool
  • Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. (c)
    ., American, serving from 10 February 2013 to present. Expected to oversee the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan, and an end to combat operations by the end of 2014. Pictured here with Florida Congressman Jeff Miller (l) and Lockheed Martin Chairman and CEO Robert Stevens (r) on February 24, 2012 at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Reuters/Michael Spooneybarger
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It might come as a surprise to learn that only six of the 15 NATO commanders at the head of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan have been American. Since 2002, there have been two Englishmen, two Turks, two Germans, a Canadian, a Frenchman, and an Italian. The Americans didn’t take over until 2007, despite the declared interests of America in the Afghan government and infrastructure following the attacks of September 11, 2001. In addition, the ISAF mandate did not extend beyond Kabul until 2003: the security of the country was still in the hands of the Afghan armed forces at that time, despite the U.S. invasion in October 2001, and the subsequent fall of the Taliban and the unrest that followed.

The ISAF is a group of international coalition forces, led by NATO, and created by the UN Security Council in December 2001.

The ISAF’s mandate in Afghanistan is a conglomeration of UN Security Council resolutions that have worked to extend the ISAF’s involvement in the country and “reaffirm” its goals of counter-terrorism and turning governance and security of the country back to the Afghans. The last Security Council Resolution, number 1917 passed in March 2010, extended the ISAF mandate until March 23, 2011.

On Tuesday, prior to U.S. President Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union address, the White House announced that the U.S. will withdraw 34,000 troops by February 2014. There are currently about 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and full coalition withdrawal is expected by the end of 2014. This means that the new guy heading up the operation, General Joseph F. Dunford, will likely be the last commander to oversee NATO in Afghanistan.

At his change-of-command ceremony on Sunday, Dunford tried to emphasize that the numerous changes in command did not mean the “goals of the coalition” had changed.

But the emphasis on the “likely.” U.S. and NATO have repeatedly said that 2014 is the target date when all NATO troops will be withdrawn from the country, but in late 2012 U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that the U.S. was “reviewing” plans to keep troops there past that date. According to Bloomberg, U.S. military officials have stated the need to keep upwards of 15,000 troops in Afghanistan past 2014. There currently is no official end-date for the war in Afghanistan. This means -- assuming that Dunford eschews PR disasters like the Rolling Stone profile that cost General Stanley McChrystal his job, or appearing “too languid and old school” à la General David McKiernan -- Dunford may be calling Kabul home for a while after 2014.

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